to Fantasy Reviews  

  of Fantasy Reviews

Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914

 LAST UPDATE 12/30/15

Only the Stones Survive by Morgan Llywelyn, Forge, 2016, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3729-4

There are two sets of historical fantasies on which I overdosed many years ago. The first consists of variations of the career of King Arthur and his followers and the second are retellings of Irish mythology. This falls into the latter category, but fortunately my aversion does not mean that I don't occasionally find a book with something new to say, or well written enough to get past my prejudices. The story involves the invasion of a peaceful island by the Gaels, who disregard the advice of their own druids in order to launch a war of conquest and pillage. The protagonist is a young man who rises to a position of leadership among these wrong people, whose lightly magical powers have not made them invulnerable to the outside world. This isn't a very long novel, particularly for fantasy, and the story moves right along. I was almost startled when I reached the closing chapters. 12/30/15

The Ghosts of Manacle by Charles G. Finney, Pyramid, 1964 

Seven short stories, two of which are not fantasy, and a novella. The novella is half the book and involves treasure hunters and it seems to go on forever without getting very far. It had not been published previously like the other stories and either was written for this book or perhaps was an unsold trunk story. The best of the shorts is “The Black Retriever” about a phantom dog that terrorizes a neighborhood, although I also very much liked “The Gilashrikes”, in which a man breeds a gila monster to a shrike, and “The Iowan’s Curse”, which is not fantasy but is very clever. All of the stories are set at least in part in the mythical town of Manacle, Arizona. This was Finney’s only collection but it includes all of his published short fiction. 12/28/15

Thinning the Herd by Adrian Phoenix, Pocket, 2016  

I believe this is available in ebook format only. The novel has some of the feel of urban fantasy, but it’s not an urban setting. The protagonist is investigating attacks on various hippies and other fringe people while not pursuing his major job as an animal control officer. One of the animals he tries to control is the common werewolf, which has been turning up in larger than usual numbers lately.  There is a sort of Lovecraftian solution to all of this, but readers should be warned that the novel does not take itself remotely seriously. I actually thought that was a plus in this case, but purists expecting another solemn fantasy romance may not be as happy with the result. I actually prefer this to the couple of serious books I’ve read by the author.12/23/15

The Unholy City by Charles G. Finney, Pyramid, 1968  

This consists of two short novels. The title story was original to the collection and is a satirical look at the modern world told in the form of a man’s visit to an exotic city. The satire is so broad that it is largely ineffective and while there are a few good scenes, it goes on far too long and without ever really focusing. The second title, The Magician Out of Manchuria, is from 1937 and is a very good Oriental fantasy about a wandering magician who can’t stand politics but gets caught up in them anyway. It is sad that this has been nearly forgotten. 12/22/15

The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney, Bantam, 1964 

This first novel won the National Book Award when it was published back in 1935. It’s very short but very compact. An unnamed circus arrives in a small Arizona town with an unimpressive parade, although the spectators can’t agree about just exactly what they’re seeing, and some of the animals appear to have stepped out of myths. There’s a lengthy appendix explaining all of the creatures and characters. This is a wonderful little book even though it really doesn’t have much of a plot. 12/18/15

Die and Stay Dead by Nicholas Kaufmann, St Martins, 2014 

The second and so far final Trent adventure is another urban fantasy, obviously. Trent comes back from the dead minutes after he is killed, over and over again, and he doesn’t know who he really is or where his power comes from. This time he and his allies are trying to find the leader of a doomsday cult who may be involved with a murder. The cult leader tried to actively end the world a few years earlier, and only succeeded in killing all of his followers. But he may be planning to try again. I liked this one a little better than the first – it was more tightly plotted and less prone to deus ex machina solutions. There was no new title this year, which might mean that there will be no further adventures. 12/15/15

Mystic Warrior by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2015, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62177-4

The Mortality Principle by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2015, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62176-7

Beneath Still Waters by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2015, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62175-0 

Alex Archer is a house pseudonym and these three Rogue Angel adventures are by, respectively, Mel Odom, Steven Savile, and Joseph Nassise. Annja Creed is an anthropologist/treasure hunter who has a magic sword that appears only when she summons it. She spends most of her adventures rescuing artifacts – often magical – from villains. In the first, for example, a genuine magic crystal turns up in a television studio, then disappears. Creed also finds documents suggesting a cache of material related to an ancient civilization that gave magical powers to its warriors. Naturally, there are bad guys who want the same things. The second is slightly more suspenseful. There is a serial killer at work in Prague and there is a possibility that the legendary golem is walking once more. There is more involved than meets the eye, but there is no question that the killer has been operating for a lot longer than the authorities will admit. Finally we have a relatively mundane adventure in which Creed has a lead to the hiding place of a considerable quantity of Nazi gold. Beneath the mundane treasure, however, is another and more fantastic one. All three of these are nicely written light adventure with touches of fantasy. I had a slight preference for the first one, but enjoyed all three, as I have almost consistently enjoyed this series since if first began to appear. 12/14/15

Dying Is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann, St Martins, 2013 

Trent is an amnesiac who apparently cannot be killed. Minute after each death, he revives uninjured, but whoever is closest to him is dead in his place. He works for a small time hood while trying to figure out who he is, but his latest job has him fighting alongside a werewolf against animated gargoyles and the magical Black Knight, none of whose existence he had previously suspected. This is pretty typical urban fantasy, and there’s a lot of magical charms and tricks that show up just when they’re needed – conveniently – so I can’t say I was very much invested in the story.  Eventually our hero becomes king of the gargoyles and the magical artifact that everyone is after is safeguarded. Okay, but nothing to get excited about. 12/11/15

His Touch Turned Flesh to Stone by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1957)  

This is a mildly humorous fantasy about a man who is hypnotized and given the ability to touch statues and bring them to life. It’s a plot to create a lover for the hypnotist. Our hero is a sculptor, however, so his creations tend to come to life before they are finished, with occasionally amusing consequences. The jokes are thin and Lesser never really exploits the device he has created, so it never rises above the trivial. 12/5/15

Bloodbound by F. Wesley Schneider, Tor, 2015, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7546-9

This is a Pathfinder role playing game tie-in novel, the first not to appear under the Paizo imprint. The protagonist is half human, half vampire. She works for the administration of a typical fantasy city, primarily involved in keeping the police between the vampire minority and the human majority. The peace is disrupted when a group of vampires murders a prominent human household and the protagonist has to team up with a priestess to figure out who is moving behind the scenes to stir up trouble. There's a fairly good mystery element and the story is quite well written. It did not, however, feel like part of the Pathfinder universe to me, at least based on the previous novels I've read. Perhaps the game has more variations than I have encountered in the fiction. 12/4/15

A Daughter of No Nation by A.M. Dellamonica, Tor, 2015, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3450-3

This is a sequel to Child of a Hidden Sea, which I have not seen and which would probably have made this easier to get into. The protagonist is one of those fantasy heroes who has been back and forth between our world and an alternate reality  and now she wants to go back. She does so, this time more involved with her father, a prominent citizen whose motives are not always clear. She decides to become a kind of forensic investigator in that other world - which consists primarily of two islands - and the stage is set for her to become a kind of detective, although the book is not packaged in a way that suggests that outcome. There's magic, of course, which makes things a little more challenging. The writing is fine, there are some good action sequences, and the fantasy world and its inhabitants are lively and interesting. This is a solid novel and I doubt it will be our last visit to Stormwrack. 11/25/15

The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston, Tor, 2015, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8031-9

The "secret history" is a form I connect more with science fiction than fantasy. These are novels that are historically accurate but which suggest that something else was happening behind the scenes. It's a natural format for fantasy, though, because most fantasy is actually set in a context based after human history. This one takes place shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar, but otherwise it's a fairly typical quest plot. The protagonists are a mixed bag of adventurers who are searching for implements of the gods, although it's possible that they are just manifestations of the Christian god. Their plans frequently go awry and they have to overcome significant obstacles. It's the first in a series, so obviously the job just gets underway by the time the book ends. This looks to be an enjoyable series and I'll be watching for the next. 11/21/15

Mystic by Jason Denzel, Tor, 2015, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8197-2

A recurring theme in high fantasy is the break with tradition. An outsider gains access to some knowledge or ability that would normally be denied them, either because they are female in a matriarchal society, a non-citizen in a nationalistic one, or as in this case a commoner who is offered the opportunity to assume privileges usually reserved for the aristocracy. The protagonist is nominated as a candidate to communicate with the Myst, a mysterious magical force that is the source of arcane power, and she is a female as well, which emphasizes her inappropriateness to those who prefer traditional choices. There is also a complex qualifying competition - the bulk of the novel - in which these prejudices make her task even more difficult than normal, but of course she perseveres. Nothing special here but it's well written and held my attention. 11/7/15

The Geomancer by Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith, Pyr, 2015, $17, ISBN 978-1-63388-094-8

Fourth in the Vampire Empire series, set in a future where the warmer parts of the world are ruled by vampires. The British Isles have recently won their independence thanks to the magical powers of one individual. Unfortunately, a man with similar powers has appeared on continental Europe and he has allied himself with the vampires, which could restore them to supremacy. This is the central plot around which subsidiary ones are twined. We get to see a good deal more of the world than in the original trilogy, and learn more about the vampire society. This doesn’t finish off the story so there is more to come in one of the more interesting new fantasy series of recent years. 10/29/15

Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine, 7th Street, 2015, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-088-7 

The premise for this short , fantastic mystery novel is very interesting. A Japanese-American professor decides to investigate his wife’s murder on his own because the police in California are disinclined to spend much time on it, given that Pearl Harbor has just been attacked.  In short order he discovers that his past life – even his wife’s existence – is slowly fading from reality. He also gets caught up in a rivalry with a Korean detective. Both of them, it turns out, are actually characters in a novel. The first has been written out in favor of the more colorful and aggressive Korean. Once I figured out what was going on, I read compulsively to the last page. This is the second book by this author that has taken me by surprise. It has a quite distinctive charm.10/28/15

Air and Darkness by David Drake, Tor, 2015, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2081-0

This appears to be the final volume in the Book of the Elements series, although it does not require you to have read the previous volumes. The metaconflict in this is essentially between rational scientific thinking and irrational magic. The land of Carce and its protectors are menaced anew when a wizard king launches a magical invasion. The defenders are divided as well, reducing their ability to work together, and there is also the inevitable magical artifact which could alter the course of the conflict. So for one last battle, the various heroes must set aside their personal problems and work together for the common good. Drake employs a clear, satisfying prose that is surprisingly rare among fantasy authors, and the result is that he can make even the most familiar plots feel fresh and interesting. 10/23/15

No More Stars by Frederik Pohl & Lester Del Rey, Armchair, 2015, $12.95 (magazine appearance 1954)   

Dave Hanson dies in an accident and is resurrected in a magical world where the sky is a dome, and the dome is disintegrating. The people who conjured him want him to repair the sky because they don’t know what is beyond it, except that it must be terrifying. Since their magic relies on the stars – which are lights on the interior of the dome – the damage has rendered magic unreliable. Unfortunately, they summoned the wrong Dave Hanson – he’s a technician rather than an engineer. Hanson is kidnapped by an underground group that thinks the fall of the sky is a good thing. He escapes and makes his way through a world where dead slaves are simply revived the following day. This is light fun in the style of the stories that Unknown Magazine made famous. 10/20/15

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman, Saga, 2015, $26.99, ISBN 978-1-4814-4560-3

I have long thought that the Old West was the perfect setting for fantasy and the supernatural, perhaps because I learned to read from paperback westerns back in 1951 when they were much more popular than they are today. Dwight Eisenhower was a big western fan. A handful of people have explored these possibilities, and Laura Anne Gilman adds her name to the list with this fine new novel. The protagonist is a young woman who has grown up in that setting, which is a kind of terra incognita to the rest of the world, supposedly people with monsters and ruled by magic. But she reaches a time in her life when she has to decide whether her destiny is in the routine or in the extraordinary. Her quest and coming of age story is set against a backdrop of history and legend, the two skillfully intertwined. The protagonist, and to a lesser extent the supporting case, is well drawn and actually an interesting person, which can't be said about the characters in most contemporary fantasy. I've not read all of Gilman's previous novels, but this is the best of those I have, and by a considerable margin. 10/13/15

Thunder in the Dawn by Henry Kuttner, Armchair, 2015,  Magazine appearance 1938  

Elak was a Conanlike barbarian warrior and exiled prince whom Kuttner used for a handful of adventure stories. Elak is an exiled prince who learns from a druid that Vikings and an evil warlock have seized his brother’s kingdom, so he agrees to go back and help drive them out. His trip is troubled not only by enemy magic but with pursuit by an outraged husband whose wife Elak has taken away with him. All is well at the end. I reread all the Elak stories a few years ago. They hold up remarkably well. 10/12/15

An Apprentice to Elves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, Tor, 2015, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2471-9

Most of the time a reference to elves is enough to deflect my interest in a new novel. This is the third volume of a trilogy that has been written over a period of about eight years, and I hadn't even realized the second one was out. The first reminded me at times of Andre Norton at her best. It's a kind of Viking saga featuring, in this case, a woman raised by wolves. Since partnering with the telepathic wolves is limited to males, she's a bit of an anomaly. And the focal point for trouble. Although part of a series, this stands alone. There are parts of it that are standard fantasy themes and other parts that are more interesting. The prose is excellent and the story is engaging, although I found the culture a little bit difficult to assimilate. I think both authors are better on their own, but that doesn't mean this wasn't worth my time. 10/9/15

Beyond the Pools of Stars by Howard Andrew Jones, Paizo, 2015, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7453-0

For the most part, I found the tie-in role playing fantasy novels published by Wizards of the Coast to be uninteresting but those from this publisher, based on the Pathfinder game, have generally been much better, more clearly sword and sorcery and less dependent on being familiar with the game. This one has an interesting background for the protagonist - she salvages sunken ships using magic. The family business is on the skids, however, so she agrees to help a reptilian race recover some of their lost artifacts from a sunken ship in the middle of the jungle. Her new clients, however, are subject to a colonial power that is equally interested in the treasure, and that puts the protagonist right in the middle. This one was  a lot of fun. 10/1/15

Minions of the Tiger by Chester S. Geier, Armchair, 2015,  Magazine appearance 1946  

A mysterious guest at a house party uses hypnotism to gain control of a beautiful young woman. The hero’s efforts to get the police to believe him are undercut by the fact that both the villain and his victims can turn into tigers from time to time, and the woman has been conditioned to believe she is in love with her tormentor. Various comings and goings follow until the hero learns that the villain’s power is connected to a magical amulet, which becomes the agent of his downfall. Okay, though not very plausible. 9/27/15

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer, Tor, 2015, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7830-9

In a fantasy world where women are limited to a handful of roles in life, the rebellious daughter of a highly placed family takes a new name and makes a living as a musician, although that is against the law. During her wanderings she learns that an ancient plague of sorts has returned, a magically induced pestilence that effectively banished all magic from the world before it subsided.  She concludes that someone is experimenting with the dark magic that led to the long ago disaster and she becomes one of those seeking to re-establish a connection with a magical plane so that good magic can drive out the bad. That will lead to more challenges than even she expects. This was nicely written though perhaps a trifle slowly paced. There is no indication that this is the first in a series, but the ending certainly suggests that there is more to come. 9/23/15

Gold Throne in Shadow by M.C. Planck, Pyr, 2015, $17, ISBN 978-1-63388-096-2

Second in the World of Prime series. An engineer from our world has been transported to a magical realm that also makes use of technology. He's now in charge of an army unit in a remote post, but it turns out to be a more difficult assignment than he expected. Although his forces are able to repel the initial attack, there are internal problems that may be even more of a threat, including a secret society and other problems. Looming over it all is a malignant presence whose eyes are set on the entire world. Fairly standard sword and sorcery and slightly better written than the first in a series, which isn't bad either. The setting is at times more interesting than the characters. 9/22/15

Dragon Coast by Greg Van Eekhout, Tor, 2015, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2857-1

Third in a series, and since I have not seen the first two, very confusing. The setting is an alternate version of America, one in which magic works. A tyrannical ruler of parts of California has been overthrow but in the process the protagonist's adopted son was killed by a firedrake. Or was he? Actually he is still alive inside the dragon, magically preserved, but unable to escape. When our hero discovers this, he sets out to effect a rescue, but in order to do that he has to go on a quest, survive a trial, and acquire a position of authority that will provide access to magical artifacts. After that and some other adventures, he completes his plan, but there are still unanswered questions, so presumably another book in the series will appear in due course. The author has a nice clear style and tells a good story. I'll be adding the first two titles to my want list.  9/19/15

Tales of Alhazred by Donald Tyson, Dark Renaissance, 2015, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-937128-73-9

The Alhazred of the title is the same one who would later write - or compile - the Necronomicon. This is a collection of short stories about his early career, experimenting with necromancy and having other adventures in the ancient Middle East. As far as I know, none of the stories have appeared elsewhere. They deal with predictable problems - djinn, ghouls, black magic, etc. - and generally run to the darker side of fantasy. The dialogue is occasionally awkwardly formal, probably deliberately so. I would have liked a little more physical description of the surroundings, but otherwise the stories are well structured. There are quite a few illustrations, many of them in color, although in general I liked the black and white ones better. They seemed better suited to the mood of the stories. Not really Lovecraftian, although there is an obvious link. 9/19/15

The Iron Ship by K.M. McKinley, Solaris, 2015, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-78108-350-5 

This was a quite pleasant surprise, although the fact that it’s the first in a series means that it has an unsatisfactory ending. The world depicted is one where the gods have gone and technology is rising alongside magic, which may be declining. The dead aren’t necessarily gone from the world; they can be summoned and questioned but can also be very dangerous. The immediate world is divided up into the Hundred Kingdoms of Ruthnia, which are mostly at peace with one another. As usual, there is a large cast of characters, many of them members of a single family. There’s an ancient being wakened from a sleep of many generations, and a change in the way the living pass over to the world of the dead. This is all very entertainingly written and there are quite a few original and sometimes fascinating details and sequences. I will be watching for the sequel. 9/17/15

Thief of Midnight by Catherine Butzen, Stark House, 2010, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-933586-31-1

Fell the Angels by Catherine Butzen, Stark House, 2015, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-933686-89-2

Technically, I suppose, these are the first two novels in an urban fantasy series, but they are so dark that I am tempted to call them horror and so far apart in publication date that they don't feel like a real series. The protagonist is a young woman named Abby Marquise who works for the Society for the Security of Reality, which is pretty much what you would expect it to be. In her first adventure, she discovers that members of a supernaturally endowed family have launched an evil program that includes bogeymen, and the battle is joined in a somewhat noirish version of Chicago. The atmosphere is dark and suspenseful and quite well done. The recent sequel is even darker and it expands to include other types of mythical creatures. This was even more suspenseful and I'd hate to have to wait five years for the third in the series, if there is even going to be a third in the series.  I doubt you'll find either of these in your local bookstore, but they're worth ordering online from either the publisher or the usual places. You won't be disappointed. 9/16/15

The Keeper by David Baldacci, Scholastic, 2015, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-83315-8

This is the second in a series following The Finisher. The young protagonist has been told all of her life that the bog surrounding her village is impenetrable, but she has begun to discover the truth about her world. Now she and a friend are planning to escape despite the evil magic and formidable creatures that bar the way. I usually find second novels in a series to be less satisfying than the first, in part I suspect because they are meant as transitions to the third. This one is an exception. I thought the adventures this time around were a lot more engaging and the protagonist develops into a much more rounded and interesting character. 9/11/15

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, Tor, 2015, 25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8072-2

Baru Cormorant is a citizen of a small island state that is absorbed into the Empire of Masks, whose weapons include bureaucracy and social reconditioning. She is ostensibly resigned to the fate of her nation but in fact she immerses herself in the conqueror's customs in order to find weak spots that can be exploited to the benefit of her people. Having become a trusted administrator, she is sent to restore control in an area thick with rebels, malcontents, and criminals, where she is supposed to reassert the control of the central government. That presents a considerable task because she is sympathetic to the rebel cause, but must conceal this fact from her superiors. At the same time, she cannot allow herself to be considered incompetent while not effectively putting down the disorder. I got pulled into this one quite early, which is unusual when I read high fantasy. I'd say Dickinson has a bright future ahead. 9/9/15

The Dragons of Dorcastle by Jack Campbell, Jabberwocky, 2015, $15, ISBN 978-1625671271

Opening volume in the Pillars of Reality series. A fairly typical fantasy world is effectively ruled by two guilds, one employing magic, the other a sort of simplified science. Two young people, each from one of the guilds, are thrown together after surviving a disaster. Although each believes that the other's guild relies on trickery rather than actual knowledge, they find they have more in common than they anticipated and an obvious attachment springs up between them. They have a series of adventures while the world at large is threatened by a previously unsuspected menace. There is a prophecy, an ingrained resistance to change, and a wealth of minor conspiracies. At least two more titles in the series have been announced. I occasionally had a problem because of the paucity of description of the physical surroundings of the characters, but otherwise this was all right, though nothing out of the ordinary. 9/5/15

The Sleeping King by Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin, Tor, 2015, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3514-2

The blurb identifies Dees as the author of many thriller and suspense novels, but it looks like most if not all of them were in the romance genre. I believe this collaborative effort is her first fantasy and it is inspired by her participation in role playing games. The setting is pretty standard. The world was devastated at one time by godlike beings who have now withdrawn to allow lesser races like humans to have their turn at messing things up. That plan also goes awry when invaders from another planet arrive and dominate the humans, elves, and other inhabitants. Their blight on the world might be reversible if an elven legend of a sleeping king is true, and if the sleeper can be wakened. Naturally various people set off to find out the truth, and therein lies the story, a series of parallel quests each taken up for different motives. And they don't necessarily find what they expect to discover. Although not listed as first in a series, it seems likely based on the ending that there will be more. The prose was competent and readable, but nothing unusual. I didn't find the story gripping - I took a break and read something else half way through - but it was interesting enough that I finished. 9/2/15

Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland, Tor, 2015, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3794-8  

This new fantasy novel by Cecelia Holland feels very much like a fairy tale. A princess whose speech is unintelligible to humans is kidnapped by a dragon who can understand her speech and who insists that she tell stories or be eaten. Elsewhere her mother, the widowed queen, is being forced into a marriage with the son of an emperor whose armies are at the gates of the kingdom. The dragon apparently proves instrumental in saving the day, not unexpectedly. A very pleasant if slightly old fashioned fantasy novel with an above average ending. 9/2/15